Joseph Heller
Joseph Heller; drawing by David Levine

History outpaces the writer who works slowly, and the anachronistic quality in Joseph Heller’s novels is understandable; but it does create some curious effects. Catch-22 became one of the sacred texts of the 1960s, when thousands of real American soldiers reenacted Yossarian’s flight to Sweden and many more of their contemporaries and elders followed them in spirit. But the book is less a prediction of the 1960s and 1970s than a bleak summing up of the 1940s and 1950s. It took us a while to catch on after its publication in 1961, as if we were waiting for the Cuban missile crisis, the first Kennedy assassination, and the full horror of Southeast Asia to persuade us of its aptness as contemporary myth.

That aptness, I think, depended upon a misreading of the novel. Its mood is surely that of the servicemen who, after learning to hate the army in World War II, came home and went to work for civilian versions of it. Though it had much to teach their children twenty years later, it can scarcely have meant to encourage their hopeful trust in moral principles and political causes. (To judge by the acidulous portrayals of adolescent malcontents in Something Happened and Good As Gold, Heller feels no great fondness for the young.) In fact Catch-22 is an end-of-ideology book, which sees any commitment as fruitless and mad except the commitment to one’s own survival. Yossarian’s problem is not political but existential; he knows that the enemy is not the Germans or even his own demented officers but death itself, especially his own death. The young readers who thought of him while they opted out were wrong about the book, though not about their world.

Bob Slocum, the central character in Something Happened (1974), also seems behind the times. Despite being given some contemporaneous problems to worry about, like drugs, crime, and racial violence, Slocum comes straight out of the Eisenhower years—an organization man being destroyed by his struggle for authority at the office and in his affluent suburban household. If the subject seems a little passé, still there are Slocums all around us, and many of them indeed were damaged by trying to live by the assumptions of that strange time.

Something Happened goes wrong, I think, by supposing that the origins of Slocum’s moral deformation are internal and psychological, not historical at all. Over and over we hear about his early sexual frustrations, his textbook memories of primal scenes and parental rejections, his compulsion to associate sex, work, and death in a way that disables him for serious experience of any of them. Nothing suggests that his cultural origins (vaguely lower middle-class and white Protestant) or his responses to the social and political conditions of the time he’s said to be living in have helped make him what he is. Nor, though the book has been praised as an analysis of the destructive power of modern corporate organizations and family relations, do we ever see exactly how being a businessman, a husband, and a father has messed him up so badly.

Even worse, Heller makes Slocum tell his own story, a device which requires him to be aware of his plight in unbelievable ways. Though he never went to college, hasn’t been in analysis, and is anything but a reader, he prattles on like any post-Freudian intellectual (with interruptions of nervous laughter) about polymorphous perversity, birth traumas, castration fears, and unresolved Oedipal conflicts. Pretty clearly there’s no “Bob Slocum” there, just a novelist doing impersonations, sometimes of a dull and pathetic victim of what he can’t understand, sometimes of a bright and manic stand-up comic who understands far too much.

So it’s a pleasure to find that Good As Gold, if hardly a perfect novel, is continuously alive, very funny, and finally coherent. Heller seems to have put together themes for three different books, some of them (once again) a little dated, but they come together surprisingly well. The first, and the least new, is that of the Jewish family novel not unlike the ones that Philip Roth and others have been doing for some time. In Heller’s version, a professor at Brooklyn College, with some (but not much) eminence as a cultural critic, struggles to defend his already considerable self-esteem against the belittlements of a wholly believable bunch of relatives who profess not to understand or even believe in his accomplishments.

Bruce Gold is forty-eight, married to a sensible, patient woman he can’t consistently be faithful to, with three unappealing children whose company he doesn’t exactly crave. He has published four books, each one mostly a rehash of the others, and is now planning a new one on “the Jewish experience of America,” a subject which everyone agrees he knows nothing about. His “friends” are old rivals from his graduate school days who’ve had at least some success in government, finance, or letters (one of them, Maxwell Lieberman, an aggressive former Wunderkind at Columbia, now the editor of an intellectual magazine, who is addicted to writing autobiography and fancies himself as the leading theoretician of neo-conservatism, sounds familiar), as well as kids from the old neighborhood who now don’t recall liking him as he remembers being liked.


But if hostility and competitiveness constitute the major tone of Gold’s circle of acquaintance, things are even worse with his own family. His abrasive, domineering father refuses to recognize his son’s success, since he works for other people and isn’t really rich; his loony stepmother keeps acting as if he is crazy; his older brother, who has had to pass up college in the Depression but has made good money in business, is the one whom (to Gold’s alternate relief and fury) everyone counts on in practical ways; his sisters can’t seem to decide whether he needs babying or nagging. Gold is hard to feel sorry for, with his philanderings, his vanity, his greed for money and starchy food, his altogether too flexible political and social outlook (he’s beginning to follow the despised Lieberman toward the right), his hope of transcending the Jewishness he’s so uneasy about by going to Washington as a presidential adviser and making it big among the rich and powerful goyim.

But Gold has a redeeming ability to feel and resist all slights, real or imaginary, and his epic conflicts with his family, which always happen in the midst of gargantuan meals and in an intensity of mutual suspiciousness that closely resembles love, are superbly comic and closely observed. Everything that’s missing in Bob Slocum’s culture is solidly there in Bruce Gold’s, and the descriptions of how his family torments him by pretending to believe in outlandish nonsense are better than anything even in Catch-22:

Esther…asked, “Sometimes when I look out my window in winter, I see ice flowing up the river—why is that?”

“That’s because ice is lighter than water,” answered Sid, “and it’s floating up to get to the top of the river.”

For an instant Gold was speechless. Blood rushed to his face. “Do you really think,” he demanded in a cold fury, “that the ice is flowing up to get to the top of the river?”

“Isn’t it?” asked Sid.

“Do you really think that up is up?” Gold blurted out, pointing northward angrily.

“Up isn’t up?” said someone.

“Sure, it’s up,” said someone else.

“What then, it’s down?” answered still one more.

“I meant north,” Gold corrected himself with a shout. “Do you really think that something is higher just because it’s north?”

Sid preserved a tranquil silence while others championed his cause.

“Of course, it’s higher. They got the mountains there, don’t they?”

“That’s why people go in the summer.”

“It’s cooler.”

“North is always higher on the map,” Ida pointed out.

“I’m not talking about a map.”

“That’s why the water always flows down to the middle of the map,” said his father with belittling arrogance. “Where it’s wider. Where there’s a lot of room.”

Such moments flow on and on (I’ve quoted only half of this one) with the inexorable logic of bad dreams, as the family revenges itself on the young scholar they’re secretly proud of, while he, even though he suspects their game, can’t help raging at their refusal to acknowledge his intellectual authority. Or maybe they really don’t respect him—behind Gold’s inability to be teased lurks a terrible fear that life seems only too ready to confirm:

“Mursh,” Gold entreated urgently, on the spur of the moment, “maybe you can help me on this. Is there something about me, something in my makeup perhaps, that causes people to want to make fun of me? Is there something that inspires humor in others, am I of a type that encourages sport?”

Weinrock, leaning back with interlaced fingers on his belly, lowered his eyelids and looked wise. “Yes, Bruce, I’m afraid there is.”

Broad as such comedy is, it seems more perceptive about human nature than anything else Heller has done. And it contains serious surprises. Gold learns that his father, who is maniacally impossible to please, and who has no good words for him and few enough for anyone else (“a cripple is always good for a laugh,” Gold père reflects of FDR), greatly preferred him to the other children when he was a small boy, and that the old man’s refusal to go back to Florida as everyone wants him to do is based not just on malice and perversity but also on a touching dread of dying far from home and family. And Gold learns to pity his older brother, whose childhood was much more unhappy than Gold’s own and who has always had to protect their father from the practical consequences of his many business failures and even from knowing that he had failed.


Heller’s second notion, using Gold as the focus for a satire on present and past presidencies and the Washington scene generally, is simpler, depending, as did Catch-22, mainly on one-joke characters. Gold learns from an old friend, an elegant and witless anti-Semite with the Jamesian name of Ralph Newsome, that he has pleased the president (unnamed, but his attorney general is Griffin Bell) for having favorably reviewed his memoirs of his first year in the White House—a year in which the president has done little except work on this book. With his gift for catchy phrases like “Nothing succeeds as planned” and “Every change is for the worse,” Gold interests a regime that takes irony straight but uses double-talk for its verbal currency, and he’s given his choice of nonelective positions, from Unnamed Spokesman to Secretary of State. In the country of the blind, even Gold can hope to be a king. But his adventures in that country probably won’t seem terribly new to those who remember satires on Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon.

Gold’s political job-hunting, however, brilliantly sets the stage for Heller’s third and most intriguing theme. Gold is potentially an analogue of Henry Kissinger, a Jewish intellectual who gains the trust of powerful Gentiles and wins eminence in circles otherwise closed to (as Ralph Newsome might say) “his kind.” This thought excites Gold, who quickly finds himself a compliant and tall WASP lady to accompany him into greatness, but it has one distinct drawback. Gold hates everything connected with Henry Kissinger, sees him as both a loathesomely pushy cartoon-Jew and a closet Nazi who only pretends to be Jewish; he has for years been clipping news stories (as has Heller, evidently—dozens are reproduced in the book) that suggest Kissinger’s pomposity, greed, deceit, and ruthlessness.

As Gold sees him, Kissinger is the archetypal schmuck that everyone else thinks Gold is, and whatever the merits of this view of Kissinger’s character, Gold’s assault on his good name—which I must suppose is Heller’s assault too—is exhilaratingly energetic and winning. Its singlemindedness serves the purposes not only of comedy and moral outrage but also gives the novel its structure. At one point Gold, who has tried to live as far from his own Jewishness as possible, is reduced to a passage of anti-Kissinger invective that contains some forty Yiddish terms of abuse. The Jewish anti-Semite—he earlier thought of writing an essay called “Invite a Jew to the White House (And You Make Him Your Slave)” to humiliate Lieberman, who is hungering to get close to power—learns from his horrified contemplation of Kissinger to understand his own worst desires, reject his dreams of being a great man, and make at least a troubled truce with his own origins. Thus a novel that had seemed about to fly apart is finally tied together by its weirdest fictional idea.

Like Heller’s other novels, Good As Gold is a book that takes large risks: it is sometimes rambling, occasionally selfindulgent, not always sure of the difference between humor and silliness. But this time the risks pay off, and I feel less resistant to the idea that Heller is among the novelists of the last two decades who matter.

This Issue

April 5, 1979